The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette this week reported that a University of Arkansas response to an open records request shows UA officials regularly communicate with the Razorback Foundation, which supports UA athletics. Duh.
The emails did add some current detail to a 30-year story I’d recounted the day before on the Arkansas Blog about the use of the private foundation to throw secrecy around pay, perks and other emoluments (think private jet use and the six-figure retirement income provided former athletic director Frank Broyles) in the athletic kingdom.
A key question was left open: Will the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette sue to unlock foundation secrets? Many, including me, have long contended the legal precedents support opening the books. It’s good the D-G has finally roused itself to challenge the status quo, once a no-no for those who chronicle Razorback exploits in the sports pages. Perhaps the newspaper’s aggressiveness is because it was behind the curve in the sudden upheaval that led to the firing of Athletic Director Jeff Long, Football Coach Bret Bielema and a raft of assistant coaches, leaving a multimillion-dollar severance bill to be paid by the foundation.
The newspaper also blew the cost of the severance deal for Bielema because it didn’t have access to all the relevant documents covering his employment, some held by the Razorback Foundation, a private nonprofit.
Now the newspaper is on the hunt. The only way to pry the records out of Razorback Foundation boss Scott Varady’s grip is a lawsuit. A Little Rock lawyer, Chris Corbitt, has given an indication he might beat the D-G to the courthouse for Varady’s refusal to detail a workout of loans made to the fired Jeff Long to buy whole life insurance as part of his compensation package.
I wish the Arkansas Times could afford to go to court, but we got bruised financially once tilting against the legal team the UA is willing to assemble to protect secrets pertaining to wealthy donors and we are less able to muster such resources today. The D-G, too, is facing the harsh realities of the changing world of publishing as evidenced by dramatic staff reductions and consolidation of statewide operations at the chain›s newspapers.
This shouldn’t take a lawsuit. An honest public institution wouldn’t participate in the fiction that the Razorback Foundation is disconnected from the university. Public employees — the chancellor and athletic director — strike pay deals with other public employees, including the athletic director and various coaches, that are guaranteed by payments from the Razorback Foundation. The foundation is able to deliver because it has the franchise to extract premium payments for UA ticket sales along with contributions from UA athletic supporters. All understand the foundation WILL deliver; otherwise nobody would take the jobs. The $120 million athletic department confers daily with the foundation on everything from ticket sales to building projects to use of a $4 million aircraft. The foundation is the department’s shadow treasury. It should function in sunlight.
I welcome the D-G’s spotlight. It, by the way, could find in the files it inherited from the late Arkansas Gazette that newspaper’s pursuit of these records in the 1980s, a pursuit that brought advertising pressure from powerful Razorback supporters interested in keeping Razorback Foundation affairs secret. The now-defunct newspaper’s success then in opening records led to the move of the foundation off campus and other steps to create an appearance of independence. But the new offices and nominally independent board are only a disguise. The foundation doesn’t exist or operate at the exorbitant SEC level without a UA Athletic Department. And vice versa.
Chancellor Joseph Steinmetz and UA President Donald Bobbitt: Tear down that wall of secrecy.